Mastering the basics: foundational elements of an essay

pedagogy Jan 07, 2019

If there’s one thing I know about mastery, it’s that experts master the basics first before building upon them...

Some of the finest athletic coaches will agree--including Vince Lombardi, former head coach of the Green Bay Packers and arguably one of the greatest football coaches of all time:

‘become the best in the league at the basics everyone else takes for granted.’

Lombardi won 5 NFL championships in the span of 5 years, 3 of those in a row...and I’m no football fan-freak; but as a teacher, I do consider ‘coach’ as one of my many hats, so yeah, that’s pretty impressive.

Or as Pablo Picasso apparently saw it (you can’t trust these ‘quote’ websites for nothing):

‘Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.’

Long story short, a focus on the fundamentals can be a game-changer because it’s been known to drive results, and build the shoulders from which to stand upon as you do your own thing.  

I’d like to believe the same goes with our writers.  It’s good for them to have an understanding of what the fundamental elements of an essay aim to accomplish before they go about bending, breaking, or blending any of those given concepts as they make them their own.

And bend, break, blend, they should, right?  I’ve never been one for coloring inside the lines anyway, but some of our most innovative thinkers never quite did either.  (So this is why I’m totally not a fan, by the way, of any strict formula for writing ‘well.’) Even the most precise experts like prolific violinist Kai Kight believe,

‘anything created by a person can--and should--be changed by others...’

I’m chalk-full of quotes today, I tell you.  

But I digress...

So let’s talk about the foundational elements of an essay that every writer should take into consideration before gettin’ jiggy with it in their own work (be that a formal essay, a letter to the editor, or a Broadway play, for that matter).  

Mischief Managed…

So here’s where (you or) your writers might get stuck…

Depending on size/length, purpose, and audience, the essay as a whole can take on many unique forms, and the various elements within can be assigned any number of varying duties.  So let’s get it straight right here that the foundations I’ll set in this post are by no means the *only* way, nor is this a strict formula to be followed.  

Formulas serve a fine purpose for emerging writers, or those who are not entirely familiar with a language just yet, or for those who lack confidence in their writing and need a lil’ nudge.

But formulas are NOT fine when they hinder eager writers from going beyond the bounds of convention to explore.  If they’re creating an uncomfortable ceiling for the writer, that’s a problem.

So do use this post as a guide; don’t use it as a blanket requirement for your writers.  Please and pretty please.

I’m glad we had this talk.  You’re the best.

Foundational elements of the introduction

The introduction can serve any number of purposes, but at bare minimum, it’s got to make it clear to the reader what the essay will address, as in the topic and the direction the writer’s point will take.

Beyond that, and again, depending on the type of essay and the medium, it might do several other things.

So for instance, if the essay is in response to a debatable question in the form of an essay prompt, then the introduction should probably introduce and unpack the various terms of that question before proceeding into an argument.

Or...let's say the 'essay' appears in the form of a blog post. In this case, it probably needs to use some highly searchable terms in the first few sentences of the introduction to optimize its search engine capability.  

So of course you’ll want to base your instruction on the unique circumstances of your assignment.

But as a general rule, here are some of the things an introduction should accomplish:

Address key words
(i.e. if the essay is responding to a question/prompt)

If the essay your students are writing is in response to an essay prompt you’ve provided them or a research question they themselves have written, they’ll need to use the keywords of that question to launch the direction of the response.  

Seems obvious, but so many students feel like this is ‘cheating’, which is why I bring it up.  In using the keywords, they perceive this act as being lazy, like they can’t come up with the words themselves, and they feel guilty for leaning on the words of the question.  

So students’ll make up their own creative ‘synonyms,’ which tends to get all types of weird.  Not that it can’t work, but this circuitous (and unnecessary) route often makes it hard for the audience to see how the response connects to the question, and that’s not the vibe we’re going for!  

So if the essay is in response to a question, encourage writers to use the key terms it features in order to make the connection between Q & A clear for the audience.

Unpack and define terms

Question or no question, your students will be writing about topics that may need unpacking and defining for the audience.  

When a student ‘unpacks’ their topic, they are considering its range of possibilities for discussion and exploring potential meanings for how the topic or issue could be perceived.  (This goes hand-in-hand, really, with exploring parameters, which we will tackle next).

Once they’ve unpacked the terms of the topic or issue, they can define those terms for the purposes of their essay.  

So for example, if a student’s essay concerns the topic of immigration, he/she might unpack this term by recognizing it in its various forms, such as ‘migration,’ emigration,’ and of course, the original term ‘immigration.’  

Then for the purposes of the essay itself, the student might define their use of ‘immigration’ to concern, generically, all three (travel within one’s own country, out of one’s own country, or across multiple countries).

The point is, defining key terms keeps the reader from making his/her own assumptions about what the writer means to say.  This avoids potential confusion and keeps the writer from losing his audience.

One other important point to note...depending on the topic, writers might need to define those terms which are familiar to the content area, or discipline, of the essay but unfamiliar to a non-specialist audience.

Explore parameters and determine the scope

Exploring the parameters of an essay topic is very similar, if not the same, to unpacking it.  But whereas ‘unpacking’ has to do with breaking down the precise terms of the topic, ‘exploring the parameters’ has more to do with understanding the expanse of the issue at large.  

These are not hairs to be split, by the way, so pah-leeze don’t teach these terms to your students as such or quiz them on knowing the difference (I so would have done that 10 years ago, by the way...gross).  

So for instance, a student might explore the parameters of that essay topic on the benefits and pitfalls of modern technology by considering the vast ‘fence’ around it.  This could expand well beyond ‘computer’ technology and into:

  • medical technology
  • environmental technology
  • military technology
  • polling technology
  • transportation technology
  • agricultural technology

 

The list goes on, right?  So the expanse around this topic reaches far and wide corners, which is where ‘determining scope’ comes in.  

Obviously, an essay covering all these possibilities isn't the way to go because it won’t likely reach great depths in logic, reasoning, or understanding; instead, it’ll merely skim the surface of these (many) types of technology, thus leaving little room for analysis (which is what we're really after!).

To avoid this kind of surface-level-only approach, the student will need to limit his or her essay to one or a select few of these types, thereby setting a limit around the discussion.

So, 'though many avenues for exploration exist, I'm only going to target X and Y for the purposes of this response' type-of-vibe.  

This is how the writer defines the ‘scope’, or range. And depending on the size/length, purpose, and audience, the scope of the essay will expand or contract, accordingly.

Consider context

Context is such a crucial part of an introduction, if you ask me.  In establishing the context of the situation for the audience, the writer does two, important things.  

First of all, he/she recognizes the fact that the topic or issue does *not* exist in a vacuum.  This is because context involves ‘the wider, unique circumstances surrounding an issue which both shape and inform it.’  

So if we’re discussing in an essay as to whether OJ Simpson was guilty in that monumental court case in the 90s, we can’t talk about his trial without recognizing the wider context of race-related issues going on in California at the time, such as rioting, police brutality, even the rise of gangsta rap. That’s part of the context in which this debatable issue was rooted, and it shaped and informed people’s opinions as to whether or not a black man on trial was innocent.

The other thing establishing context does is it establishes a case for the reader as to why he/she should keep reading.  It answers the question for them, ‘who cares?’ For emerging readers, this is what we often call ‘establishing a hook’ for the audience to make them keep reading.  In essence context can:

  • Establish a case for ‘why this essay is worth reading’, and
  • Establishing the urgency that this issue is worth reading about now more than ever’

 

To help you guide your students through an effective line of reasoning, check out The Tree of Reasoning toolkit!

Establish direction, purpose, and tone

Even if none of the other elements of the introduction are present, the thesis statement is a must, as you likely know.  This is the portion (notice I don’t necessarily say ‘sentence’) of the introduction that makes the point and purpose of the essay clear.

For emerging writers, we often teach the thesis as containing three points, which in turn become the three paragraphs of the essay.  So: ‘something is something because of a, b, and c.’

But for developing and more advanced writers, my recommendation is to teach the thesis in the broader sense because this gives students room for exploration, development, and growth during the course of the essay’s unpacking.

So, your students might start off arguments, for instance, knowing they support issue X, and they might say so in their introduction via thesis: ‘There are a number of benefits to issue X.’  

But as they develop their essays, it’s the hope that this analytical process helps them arrive at an even clearer understanding of what that means by conclusion’s end.

Kind of like the poetic structure characteristic of the Romantic period:  

You begin at Point A, you move through a journey of some sort (progressing through Point B), then you arrive back at Point A again, but it’s Point A *squared* because you’re somehow changed, enhanced, or heightened as a result of your adventure.  

Neato, right?  That’s kind of how I view the development of a thesis (from intro, through body, to conclusion) in a student essay.

And finally, the language contained in the introduction should make the author’s attitude toward the subject clear, establishing a tone that gives the audience a glimpse at what to expect as they follow along.

Mischief Managed…

So those are the foundational elements of an introduction, give or take the size and intentions of the work.  However, once again, I bring us back to some potential mischief that might need managing in working through this with students:

  • These introductory elements should not be treated as isolated steps that students 'check off' individually; many actually occur simultaneously.
  • There is no set order in which these elements occur; avoid formulaic or rigid requirements.
  • ALL of these elements are not necessarily appropriate ALL the time; students should use them organically and in response to the unique circumstances of the writing task.

 

Let your students tinker and explore until they find the flow that best suits their intentions for writing.

 

Foundational elements of the body (supporting paragraphs)

When it comes to paragraphing, there is no magic number for what makes an essay complete, balanced, or 'proper.'  

So it’s my best advice to avoid placing these limitations upon your students’ work, even if you think they need them.

Instead, if there’s a goal you want your students to reach, such as a word count, show them a wide range of mentor texts that accomplish this goal in different ways, and let them distill meaning from it on their own terms (instead of requiring x number of paragraphs as your average to reach that goal).

Take it or leave it, of course, depending on the unique circumstances of your population, but keep in mind that writing should be about exploring what works as opposed to dictating format.  

So the body paragraphs--as you know--serve the main aim of supporting the thesis.  Included in the body should be reasons to support the thesis, evidence to support the reasons, and analysis/justification as to why this input is relevant to the overall point.

The method behind the writer’s madness in organizing these ideas will rely on the goal he or she is trying to accomplish.  (ex. if it’s an argument of cause, the essay will take on a cause-effect pattern.)

No matter the aim, the body paragraphs should try to accomplish the following:

Maintain focus on the thesis, without digression

This can be accomplished by using the terms of the topic, or those keywords that appear in the question.  Just make sure your students vary up their word choice (when they get into the body), using synonyms whereby possible to avoid that nasty mechanical sound we know of as redundancy.

Develop a clean line of reasoning

Ideas need to progress logically from one to the next.  In other words, students shouldn’t be able to switch up paragraphs at random and the essay still makes sense!  Reasons should be made clear, preferably in the topic sentence of a paragraph--though not always--and evidence should be offered to support reasons.  

The most important part, however, is that students take the time to make connections between the claims of the essay and the evidence offered.  This analysis can be developed in a number of ways.

Put simply, this kind of analysis (linking claims and evidence) makes the writer’s reasoning transparent for the audience so they’re more likely to ‘follow along’ and understand the writer’s position in sharing that input.

Use transitional words and phrases

In order to accomplish this logical progression of ideas, writers need to signpost their points by using transitional words and phrases to signify the relationship among ideas.  This clarifying lingo should appear within paragraphs as well as across, from one paragraph to the next; so sharing strategies for achieving this effect will be a key point of your instruction.  

The best way to do this would be through the process of inquiry and observation.  Tinkering with the works of others, breaking these down to see what makes them ‘tick’ and distilling understanding from these observations can help students make meaning on their own terms, and therefore absorbing the craft of writing in ways that go beyond mere dictation from the teacher.

[If your students are writing arguments, specifically, check out my post on developing a logical line of reasoning through the ‘tree of reasoning’ strategy.  It’s great for helping students conceptualize the foundational elements of an argument!]

Mischief managed…

  • A single point in an essay isn’t necessarily reserved to a single paragraph. Depending on the size/length, purpose and audience, a student might take several paragraphs to roll out a single point, so make sure they’re given the freedom and license to do this ;-)
  • Transitions should range from the good ol’ obvious to those more seamless in approach; students should demonstrate a varied command in all ways of transitioning and expressing relationship.
  • As opposed to isolating grammar, think about weaving in a lesson on adverbs--for example--as you work through support development with your writers.  Observing how qualifiers can establish tone, and how conjunctive adverbs can connect ideas is a great way to make this kind of work more meaningful and empowering for students.

 

Foundational elements of the conclusion

It makes me sad that students sometimes see the conclusion of an essay as an afterthought, a graveyard where you dump those ideas that have gone before and skip out before anyone knows the difference.  

As students often see the conclusion: simply ‘restate your thesis in new words, and end on a happy note.’

SO much more than that, y’all!  

But I don’t have to tell you that.  So let’s review together, for the purposes of validating and reinforcing our own professional know-how, the many reasons why the conclusion is so magical.

For developing and advanced writers, the conclusion needs to move beyond the bare basics of wrapping up the key points covered in the essay.  

For one, the conclusion is that unicorn moment where the writer genuinely enters the conversation, after all things have been considered, so to speak.  They get to weigh in on the matter, full-throttle, by sharing insights gained as a result of their rumination.

In doing so, they might stumble upon an alternative way of thinking about something, or they might uncover potential consequences that others may not have considered before.

And not to mention, the conclusion is a perfect place to lay plain the limits of one’s work while opening opportunities for future study.  In other words, this is where writers--who might be limited in their own scope and resources for pursuing an issue--can inspire other writers who may be in a better position to elevate the conversation further.

Beyond signaling the end of the essay and restating the key point therein, important features of a conclusion may therefore include:

Unlocking important insights, Imparting relevant reflections

Writers please their audience when they can offer important insights and fresh ways of thinking about a topic that the reader might not have thought of otherwise.  This is what is usually meant by ‘satisfying’ the reader. It’s all about making their time worthwhile by imparting something new or by validating the way the audience might already feel.

Meanwhile, students often overlook the force of the conclusion because they aren’t always given the opportunity to explore (and respect!) the power of reflection in general.  By giving the process of reflection a lead role in your classroom’s day-to-day culture, you’ll likely see a remarkable difference in how students process information at the end of their essays, too.

One other thing to keep in mind is that insights should be a relevant reflection of both what came before in the essay’s body, and how the student genuinely feels about the topic or issue as a human being.  Their voice should be crystal clear in the closing remarks!

Passing judgment

For those students who are developing an argument, they will need to pass judgment in order for it to constitute as such.  This is what it means to be ‘evaluative,’ and it’s the highest order of critical thinking because the student needs to make a logical decision that the audience can accept on reasonable grounds.  

Implications and/or consequences

Likewise, for those students who are looking to convince their audience, one of the ways to accomplish this feat might be to consider with the audience potential consequences that may result in accepting or denying the writer’s position.  Students can ponder what the evidence contained in the essay seems to imply and how this might impact others as a result. This can help them move the needle forward in terms of their position, tipping the scales through the use of cause-and-effect.

Offering solutions

One of the many ways to add insight to essays, particularly ones that are exploring debatable issues, is to offer potential solutions to the issue or problem.  

The only caveat to this, is that students will want to avoid stating that the solution ‘is simply to’. And that's because this implies that the solution is an easy fix...but if that were the case, wouldn’t it be solved already?!

Instead, if students pursue solutions, they should do their research, see what others recommend, test their own ideas, and offer a blend of these observations as a means of making new meaning out of what hasn’t yet worked but has the potential to if the proper conditions arise or missing link is added.

Look to the future

You’ve likely heard this one many times before, so I’m including it on our list for this reason.  But in essence, ‘looking to the future’ can refer to either considering future consequences and/or suggesting future research that has yet to be conducted to gain a better grip on the topic or issue.  

And, this just goes to (further) show that these foundational elements *do not* just happen in isolation!

Mischief managed

  • Unless your students are writing a research essay and an argument to boot, the inclusion of ALL these concluding elements is not necessarily likely.
  • Another consideration...it doesn’t take loads of language to achieve the effect of some of these elements.  A student could offer an innovative solution in a simple sentence or two, or inspire future research in a simple point made.  
  • While you might feel that the words ‘I/me/my’ have no place in an academic essay, I invite you to reconsider; these words are actually the very language of analysis and evaluation as we know it, and barring them when they might otherwise be appropriate and/or effective is merely prescriptive (i.e. it’s not grammatically incorrect to use these terms in an essay).  Meanwhile, what it really comes down to is control and command, and it's our job to teach them that.
  • While an essay that ends with gloom-and-doom can be disconcerting for the audience, a warning or sense of foreboding shouldn’t be outlawed either.  As a general rule, it’s great to end on a good note, so perhaps offering a potential solution in light of that concern might be a good way to accomplish this without losing the force of such foreboding.
  • And my biggest ‘mischief managed,’ is that the conclusion is NOT necessarily a single paragraph.  Instead, I invite you to view the conclusion as a portion of the essay that can be developed in several paragraphs as the essay winds down.  

And that does it, friends!  I hope I’ve challenged or validated what you know to be true about the foundational elements of an essay.  The key takeaway is that essays involve an iterative process, that they’re much more than a linear set of steps to complete.  

PDF Guide: Foundational Elements of an Essay

If you use the Foundational Essay Elements Guide, please-oh-please do so with the following in mind:

The various essay components featured in this guide should not be seen as isolated entities, each occurring in their own separate sentence or paragraph.  (Though possible, likely NOT true!)

Instead, assure students that it's possible to accomplish more than one thing on the list at once (ex. defining terms while also considering the parameters in the same breath), and that’s great.  They should focus on accomplishing the collective spirit of the features, as opposed to ticking them off one by one, per se.

To wrap it all up...

Sensible enough, right?  Duh, you got this, brave teacher! 

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